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Tue 22 June 2021

Ostensibly independent information on COVID-19 is being carefully controlled by the Department of Health and Social Care and Downing Street, internal emails show

Internal Government email correspondence seen exclusively by Byline Times suggests that Number 10 Downing Street, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and several other Government agencies are heavily involved in controlling the flow of information from Public Health England (PHE) to the public, despite the fact that PHE is supposed to be an independent agency.

On 6 June, the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) received a request for data on behalf of Lord James Bethell, who has been a Health Minister at the DHSC since May 2020, for use in the House of Commons on Monday. Lord Bethell sought PHE data on the number of new variant cases, hospitalisations, vaccinations and other issues.

An email dated 7 June sent by the senior private secretary to the Director General of the JBC Claire Gardiner noted that “unfortunately this is PHE’s work/stats but in any case if we did have stats at our fingertips we wouldn’t update the briefing as they would need to have been already published.”

The civil servant went on to acknowledge the predominant role of Number 10’s in controlling PHE’s publication of data: “PHE operate a weekly publication schedule for these stats which is (euphemism intensifies) ‘very strongly managed’ by No. 10 owing to sensitivities around variant data – so ad hoc publications to support more data entering the public domain are very difficult to come by.”

A DHSC official, who spoke to Byline Times on the condition of anonymity, said that the email from the JBC, which was circulated to several DHSC officials and was eventually also sent to PHE, revealed how: “No. 10, the JBC and DHSC all seem to speak openly and brazenly about their suppression of PHE information. It meant that they are making fun out of the fact that PHE aren’t even allowed to manage their own data. But PHE is an independent agency. Prior to all this, there was no issue regarding publication of data which was entirely up to them, they could publish what they wanted.”

According to the DHSC official, the email is reflective of the fact that PHE is no longer functioning as an independent scientific agency. “In order of priority, this is who really has control of PHE and especially its publication of data: No. 10, Dr Jenny Harries, then Matt Hancock,” they said.

Dr Harries is chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency which works closely with the JBC and the NHS ‘Test and Trace’ operation managed by Dido Harding. Gardiner has been seconded from signals intelligence agency GCHQ, where she is head of cyber resilience and strategy at the National Cyber Security Centre. The JBC website notes that it is accountable to Parliament through Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock and Minister for Care Helen Whately.

The DHSC source previously revealed to Byline Times that Whately had “leaned on” PHE to suppress and alter its original guidance calling for NHS patients to be tested before discharge to care homes.

“The Joint Biosecurity Centre is hands down one of the shadiest organisations you’ve ever known,” said the official. “They make all the decisions, but nobody knows what they actually do. They decide the red lists, but they’re run by spies.”

The official said that as a result of these layers of control, with most “decisions about data being made by No. 10,” PHE has become “a powerless, limp organisation”.

The new documents seen by Byline Times confirm previous reports by The Guardian and Observer suggesting high-level political efforts to suppress PHE data on COVID-19 transmission in schools, and on outbreaks linked to the Delta variant. However, the documents indicate that this is not a mere one-off problem, but an entrenched unofficial policy – one that is, however, widely understood in the JBC, DHSC and even in PHE. 

A spokesperson for the DHSC told Byline Times that, apart from rejecting these claims as “unsubstantiated” their “primary duty has been to protect the NHS and save lives.”

“We have been committed to transparency throughout this pandemic, including working closely with Public Health England to ensure scientific advice and data is published honestly, openly, safely and in a timely manner,” the spokesperson added.

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